by lyle e davis
Are you getting just a little tired of bond issues? Of initiatives that, one way or the other, are going to cost you and me some green? A little tired of high priced consultants, politicians and quasi-politicians figuring out the latest and quickest way of feeding at the public trough and putting it to the taxpayer one more time? A little tired of deceptive advertising and false promises? Well, if you are a taxpayer, and who amongst us isn’t? then you would do well to remember Proposition 172, passed in 1993, which provides local governments with a permanent additional half-cent sales tax for public safety purposes. As set forth in the ballot argument in support of Proposition 172, the tax proceeds would, among other things, "guarantee funds for fire protection."
Remember that phrase. It’s important.
Bear in mind, while remembering the above phrase, that your County Board of Supervisors have just authorized another “parcel tax plan” to go before you, the voters, this November. Guess what it’s for?
It’s to create a regional fire protection agency and establish a parcel tax for fire protection.
But, you ask, why do we need another layer of government? And why do we need money? After all, Proposition 172 promised us tax proceeds would, among other things, “guarantee funds for fire protection.”
(Continue to remember that phrase. It’s important. We will be coming back to revisit this phrase fairly often. We will also recommend our county politicians revisit that phrase and to re-read Proposition 172.)
To better understand how we’re being hoodwinked (again) we have to understand the rules by which these rascals play.
Let’s go back in our magic time machine to 1993 when the state of California was in a budget crisis. California was also just barely recovering from a devastating series of wild fires. The fires, as you will soon see, played an important role in this story.
To balance the state budget, the Legislature, at the urging of Governor Pete Wilson directed that property tax money be siphoned away from the local governments to help fund schools. To mitigate this loss of funds, and to mollify the local governments, city and county, that had funds taken away from them, then-Governor Pete Wilson called a statewide special election in November 1993 for the express purpose of passing Proposition 172, a one and one-half billion dollar annual state sales tax of 1/2 percent, devoted to public safety.
Proposition 172 was only getting a lukewarm reception from the public. Perhaps you remember the commercials. Crime - not fires - was the focus of the Proposition 172 campaign until the last few days. Polls at the time showed crime to be the second-greatest concern of California residents, after the economic recession. One of the Proposition 172 television ads featured Clint Eastwood's voice and an image of a woman walking alone through a dark parking lot.
Ballot statements in support of Proposition 172 stated: "Carjackings, ATM holdups, shootings in our schools, violence, murder and mayhem dominate the evening news each and every night."
But less than a month before the election, polls showed that three of four registered voters did not know enough about Proposition 172 to take a position.
But then a strange thing happened. When flames erupted in searing Santa Ana winds, campaign consultant Stu Mollrich moved quickly to compose new ads.
"It'll just be straightforward: Proposition 172 provides needed funding for fire services, and people ought to support it," Mollrich told The Los Angeles Times just days before the election. "We'll show footage of people fighting fires."
The television commercial promoting Proposition 172 in 1993 exuded urgency, even for a political campaign ad. Quick cuts between speeding fire engines, bad guys in handcuffs, and shimmering flames grabbed viewers' eyes.
With howling sirens and garbled radios interspersed in the background, a baritone narrator chimed in: "Californians depend on their firefighters and cops, every hour of every day. But budget reductions are threatening to make drastic cuts to our public safety."
The television ads featured firefighters and paramedics and several serious Southern California fires the previous month, including the Guajome fire near the Wild Animal Park. Proponents credited the measure's success, in part, to wildfires that burned hundreds of homes in Southern California the week before election day. All were attributed as a factor to the measure's passage, by 58%.
Despite its sales pitch, Proposition 172 shortchanged firefighting. Or, rather, the politicians designated to act as the conduit for the funding from Proposition 172 shortchanged the firefighters, and the voters!
Proposition 172 specified that the funds would be allocated by the state, to the counties, who, in good faith, would act as the conduit, seeing that the funds reached the city as well as county coffers. And, oh yes, there was that little item about "guaranteeing funds for fire protection,” remember? That’s the phrase we asked you to remember ‘cause it was important?
But since then, county supervisors have given fire departments very little of that annual $1.5 billion a year generated by the tax. Seems they’ve kept most of it for themselves.
Here are some interesting stats:
HowProp 172 Gets Spent:
San Diego County
Sheriff - 70%
District attorney - 20%
Probation - 10%
Fire protection - 0%
Los Angeles County
Sheriff - 85%
District attorney - 15%
Fire protection - 0%
Source: County budget officials - in San Diego, Dorothy Thrush, Finance Director, Public Safety Group
Frankly, we’re afraid of our politicians . . . the quasi-politician, the marketing experts, all of whom are anxious to get into our pockets and seek to do so via bonds, statewide initiatives, and other machinations designed to rob the taxpayer.
It is because of this fear, this distrust of people in power, that The Paper is recommending a “No” vote on the proposed county parcel tax plan, known as Proposition A, that, purportedly, is designed to provide $50 million per year for use as a “fire tax” to boost the region’s fires services. To do this, there would be a $52 per parcel tax pawned off on the property owner.
(Are you still holding in your memory that phrase that was used in the Proposition 172 argument that “guarantee funds for fire protection?” You are? Good for you! You just might get a passing grade.)
Recently, the county approved a plan to merge a dozen rural fire agencies and increase its spending on fire resources from about $8 million a year to $15.5 million. The proposed parcel tax would be in addtion to that money. With the additional money, they say, they’d be able to hire more firefighters at each department.
Is The Paper against firefighting? Firefighters? Equipment for firefighters?
What The Paper is against is imposing a tax to cover costs that have already been provided for by Proposition 172 back in 1993. Yes, that’s correct. 1993.
After 15 years, Proposition 172 has fallen short of replacing the $2.3 billion that Sacramento took away from the counties and cities. And leaders from local city governments and the firefighting community say fire protection has been especially shortchanged after being placed front-and-center in the marketing campaign for the tax initiative.
Instead, the bulk of money in nearly every corner of the state, including San Diego County, has gone to county law enforcement programs, such as the sheriff, district attorney and jail services.
In San Diego County, which does not have a countywide fire department despite deficiencies in the region's fire responses, the Board of Supervisors spends 70 percent of the Proposition 172 funds on the Sheriff's Department, 20 percent on the district attorney and 10 percent on probation, as of the 2006-2007 fiscal year.
"Those of us in fire who tried to get this thing passed were misled, bottom line," former city of San Diego Fire Chief Jeff Bowman said.
Cities have also coveted the larger slice given to county governments. Counties were hit the hardest after the property tax shift, but they've been able to recapture their losses much more rapidly than cities.
On the average, counties receive about 95 percent of the funds, with the rest trickling down to cities.
Currently, San Diego County is saying “The County wants to set up a countywide fire protection district. We want county members to “come together” as a separate organization but we can’t do it . . . there’s no funding.”
They have the funding. They’ve had it since 1993. Fifteen years ago taxpayers gave the green light by passing Prop 172.
The San Diego County Supervisors control the funds.
Since that time, the County has been keeping about 95% of that money, with only 5.6% passed through to the rest of the communities. So alleges former San Marcos Mayor Corky Smith who, though out of office, is still in harness and keeping a sharp eyes on the bureaucrats and politicans that run this county. Further, he alleges, in spite of the fact that the County represents less than 1/2 million people (491,764 out of an entire population, including cities, of 3,146,274 as of January 1, 2008) they are keeping 95% of the money.
Rick Gittings, former San Marcos City Manager, reported to Mayor Smith, when he was still in office, that though San Diego County had received over $1 billion to balance their budget; they do not have one fire truck, not one fire house, nothing to do with the fire department, which was one of the primary purposes of the funding.
The state provided the money, as authorized by the voters, but allowed the county to be the conduit to funnel this money to needed projects.
In the first year, San Diego County received $110 million. It was over $200 million when Corky left office. Today, San Diego County’s share of the Prop 172 funds is $248.3 million (as of the 2006-2007 fiscal year). The County, Smith alleges, put that in their own budget. “They don’t have any right to keep that money for a fire department because they don’t have a fire department.”
Corky Smith, former San Marcos Mayor
Well, Corky is partly correct. Actually, the County does have the legal right to dispense the funds to ‘public safety’ departments. The bulk of that public safety funding has gone to the San Diego Sheriff’s Department.
But where Corky is right . . . the people, that’s you and me, the voters, were told that Prop 172 needed to pass so we’d have funding to “guarantee funds for fire protection.”
David Allan of La Mesa, a retired fire captain who served with the San Miguel Consolidated Fire Protection District, has pointed out that the county allocated the entirety of its Prop. 172 revenue to the Sheriff's Department, the district attorney, the marshal, and jail construction. He said, “ If some of that money would have gone into fire protection in the county, we wouldn't be where we are today."
How do our elected representatives at the county level feel? Are they sympathetic to the fire departments and the need to fund them through Prop 172 funds. Nope.
"Every fire department in town wants some of that money. But we're not giving up our allocation, period," said Bill Horn, then-chairman of the Board of Supervisors. "When Prop. 172 was passed, that money was to go to our sheriff and our DA, and that's where it's going to stay," he said. "I don't care how it was pitched."
He doesn’t care how it was pitched. He doesn’t care that promises made were broken.
Isn’t that just lovely?
While the money initially was used for extras at the Sheriff's Department, it mostly helps to pay the bills now. It accounts for almost half (45.9%) of the department's $540.4 million budget for the 2006-2007 fiscal year. The department provides law enforcement to about 850,000 of the county's 3.1 million residents.
While still in office, on two or three separate occasions, Smith and Rick Gittings wrote to every mayor in the county, seeking support for money to be invested in fire agencies. Only one mayor, the Mayor of La Mesa, even acknowledged the letter. La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid represents the San Diego Division of the League of California Cities, a group analyzing the distribution of the public safety tax.
"We don't want to start any turf wars with our colleagues at the county. We just want our share of that money," said Madrid, who would like the county to cut its take by at least 6 percent. "It's about parity and equity."
Since that time the county has received some $2.5 billion (from 1993 through June 30, 2007). San Diego has 3,146, 274 people yet its communities have only received $100 million for the past 15 years . . . while the county, with a population of only 491,764 (as of January 1, 2008) has taken $2.5 billion the county has received.
Mayor Corky Smith also sent letters to all of the supervisors; he has also sent them letters since returning to private life.
He’s been ignored. No response from any of the supervisors.
Smith brought the issue up at SANDAG. He was ignored. Again.
Another former San Marcos Mayor and Councilmember, Lee Thibadeau, confirms Mayor Smith’s account.
“Corky’s right. Prop 172 was a statewide initiative. They ran scary tv commercials urging the public to support 172. The message was very clear. It was to fund public safety . . primary intent and purpose, at least as suggested in the tv ads, was for fire department support. The counties were to receive the money, but in San Diego County at least, they have been distributing only a small percentage, keeping the rest for themselves and, it appears, using those funds for purposes other than intended. The County wants everyone to participate to address fire concerns, yet it is not following through on its responsibility to distribute the funds appropriately."
"It appears the County uses money to cover shortfalls . . . I notice the Sheriff’s office, in particular, appears to have been a major recipient. Suddenly budget requests from Sheriff’s were covered by county because the county had the extra money. At one point, for example, the department bought Glock weapons for deputies and even reserve deputies."
Under Proposition 172, funds from the statewide half-cent sales tax are allocated to each county based on its relative share of statewide taxable sales. This countywide “pot” is then allocated to each of the cities within that county, and the county itself, generally in proportion to its share of the property tax transfer.
Here’s the formula, as provided by Dorothy Thrush, Finance Director, San Diego County:
Carlsbad ............... 0.3582694
Chula Vista .......... 0.3126700
Coronado ............. 0.1205707
Del Mar................. 0.0266781
El Cajon................ 0.1479797
Imperial Beach.... 0.0543447
La Mesa................ 0.1035164
Lemon Grove..... 0.0151415
National City....... 0.0569347
San Diego .......... 3.1831131
San Marcos ........ 0.0585130
Certain cities are not eligible for a distribution of funds since they were not impacted by the property tax shift to the State in 1993-94. Those cities are Poway, Santee, Encinitas and Solana Beach.
Under Proposition 172, cities and counties must use their allocations from the half-cent sales tax to support “public safety” functions. Senate Bill 509 defines public safety functions to include, but not be limited to: police and sheriffs, fire protection, county district attorneys, ocean lifeguards, and county corrections. City and county costs related to courts are specifically excluded from this definition of public safety.
Former San Marcos Mayor
In a letter from then Governor Pete Wilson to then San Diego County District Attorney, Ed Miller, it was pointed out that Senate Bill 509 used specific language to ensure funds were “not limited” in order that any other critical public safety functions would not be over-looked in any given county.
Governor Wilson also said “the public will be watchful and will take its cue from how honest and strict compliance with the intent and spirit of SB509 will be a strong argument in gaining voter approval as we approach the November election. Should these funds be diverted or diluted the trust gained with the public will have been broken . . .”
We submit those funds have been diverted or diluted by not going to help support the fire protections we were promised. A mere 15% of the Prop 172 funds would go a long way toward fulfilling that promise.
Cities play a significant role in providing fire protection to San Diego County, while the county government plays a relatively small part. Special fire protection districts, which protect much of the county's backcountry, don't receive any Proposition 172 money because they didn't lose funding from the property tax shift.
As county boards of supervisors across the state continue to bypass handing out Proposition 172 funds for other public safety functions, critics say the 1993 ballot measure amounted to a bait and switch.
Bowman, who was fire chief of Anaheim at the time of the 1993 proposition, remembers that fire protection played a particularly integral role in marketing the sales tax measure. With polls showing that Proposition 172's prospects were shaky just weeks before the election, a fire that destroyed 441 structures in Orange County became a rallying cry. Footage of firefighters dousing the fire was aired just before Election Day, when the initiative sailed to victory.
"Now we know the public voted for something and they didn't know how the money was going to be spent," he said.
Defenders and even some critics of the current arrangement say it's a tired issue, and that it's unrealistic to expect fire protection to get a bigger chunk of the money.
But as county officials scramble to assemble a plan for bolstering the region's firefighting capabilities following the firestorms that tore through the region in October of 2003 and again in October, 2007, those advocating use of Proposition 172 funds for fire protection are trying to revive the debate.
In La Mesa, Mayor Art Madrid and City Councilman Dave Allan complain the city's Fire Department isn't fairly compensated for aiding firefighting efforts outside the city limits. When La Mesa fire engines and personnel are sent outside their jurisdiction, the city ends up paying other firefighters overtime to backfill the posts that are abroad, they said.
"Until we get 172 money, we are essentially subsidizing the county when it comes to fire protection," said Allan.
Allan is among several lawmakers and fire officials who have tried to target the sales tax revenue. They complain that it's unfair for the sheriff, who patrols the unincorporated areas of San Diego County and contracts with just a few other cities, to receive the lion's share.
The county has dug in its toes on the issue, saying that the sheriff and district attorney depend very heavily on Proposition 172 revenues and that cutting its share will significantly harm the services they provide.
La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid even alleges District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis has threatened him: “I want you to get off the 172 kick. Drop 172 or Bill (Kolender) and I will come after you.”
In response to this allegation, Ms. Dumanis said: "My conversations with Mayor Madrid have always been professional and cordial. The District Attorney's Office relies on Proposition 172 funding for 41% of its budget. Any changes in the distribution of those funds would be a threat to public safety in San Diego County,. Continuing to debate the shift of Proposition 172 revenue from one local government to another will not solve the fiscal challenges we all face.”
Critics insist counties are still straying from the original intent of the ballot measure. Fire protection must become a higher priority than some of the other areas that currently receive the money.
Former state Sen. Steve Peace, who brokered legislation in 1996 that allowed San Diego County cities a marginally larger share of the Proposition 172 pie, thinks counties around the state are using too much of the money toward district attorneys.
"I would have written the DA out ... it clearly wasn't the intent," Peace said. "It was supposed to be for police and fire."
Even Dianne Jacob, the East County supervisor who defends the formula, acknowledges the public was misled when advertisements in 1993 claimed firefighters would benefit. "No question about it, it was a sham," she said. Jacob hinted at a threat that Proposition 172 critics said is all too familiar. She hinted that cities could expect to receive bills from the county to pay for other sheriff and district attorney services, such as booking inmates at county jails and prosecuting crimes in their cities, if the cities were ever to prevail in their quest to garner more funds. "The cost of that is far more expensive than what cities could ever get from more 172 funds," Jacob said.
On January 30, 2004, the then-Attorney General of California, issued an opinion in response to the question: Is an independent fire protection district eligible to receive Proposition 172 monies under the Local Public Safety Protection and Improvement Act of 1993?
“An independent fire protection district is eligible to receive Proposition 172 monies under the Local Public Safety Protection and Improvement Act of 1993.
We reject the suggestion that the Legislature’s implementing statutes exclude special districts from funding eligibility because the statutory language refers only to cities and counties and not to districts. While the tax revenues are initially divided among the counties and the cities according to a statutory formula (§§ 30054-30055), each city and county has discretion to decide how to spend its allocation, limited only by the proviso that the monies be spent exclusively on public safety services in an amount that matches its “base year” funding level. (§§ 30052- 30056; see 86
Ops.Cal.Atty.Gen., supra, at pp. 40-42.)
Similarly, a county may distribute Proposition 172 funds to an independent fire protection district as part of its funding of “all combined public safety services.” (Id. at p. 42.)2
Accordingly, we conclude that an independent fire protection district is eligible to receive Proposition 172 monies under the Local Public Safety Protection and Improvement Act of 1993.”
Prop 172 was passed by the voters, thanks to a campaign that simply lied to the electorate. In San Diego County, 85 percent of the money the state commandeered was from the county government, 15 percent from incorporated cities. However, a decision was made by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors that instead of giving 85% to the county, they would give 95 percent of the sales tax money to the county, 5 percent to the cities. The split has been tweaked occasionally but is essentially the same today, with the cities getting 5.6 percent.
Supervisor Diane Jacob: “No question about it, (Prop 172) was a sham.”
Three agencies – the sheriff, probation department and district attorney – got the county's $248.3 million last year. San Marcos, by contrast, got $145,000. Carlsbad received $8.8 million, Chula Vista $7.7 million, San Diego $78.9 million.
But cities are where the taxable sales occur and clearly are subsidizing services for unincorporated areas. La Mesa residents, for example, paid $6.1 million into this sales tax pool last year, but got back just $257,000.
La Mesa City Councilman Dave Allan, a retired firefighter and public safety union president, Mayor Art Madrid, and Corky Smith, former San Marcos Mayor, are all leading an effort to discuss splitting one slice of the pie differently in the future.
The county, understandably, prefers the status quo and would like to quash any talk of revision. We believe there is merit in examining how government spends its tax dollars and whether some services such as rural fire protection could be provided better.
"In our view, it's just not right that a proposition that was passed on the basis of what it would do for police and fire, and was pushed over the 50% mark by the public's response to a major fire, has yielded so little for the fire service," said Carroll Wills, a spokesman for the California Professional Firefighters.
We think Corky Smith has been right all along. We also think, at a minimum, the County of San Diego should distribute Prop 172 money on the original basis of 85% to the County, 15% to the affected cities. The county could still fund the Sheriff’s Department by 65%, District Attorney by 20% and cities by 15%, said 15% to be apportioned to firefighting, as was originally proposed.
With this split, and given an estimated annual Prop 172 funding of $248 million, the cities would have $37.2 million to invest in the regional fire protection agency. Remember, the county has already approved a plan to merge a dozen rural fire agencies and increase its spending on fire resources from about $8 million a year to $15.5 million. With the $15.5 million the county has already apportioned, we would now have $52.7 million which is approximately what they were seeking in the parcel tax plan (Prop A), which is no longer needed.
Now, it is simply up to the County Board of Supervisors to do the right thing and restore the money from Prop 172 to the cities so that we can put an end to the massive destruction of our lands due to fires . . . so that promises to the voters, will at last, be kept.
It is clear they won’t do it voluntarily so The Paper suggests we apply public pressure to them. The court of public opinion is a powerful weapon when used properly.
We salute former San Marcos Mayor Corky Smith, La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid, and La Mesa Councilmember Dave Allan for their tenacity in leading this fight to get the supervisors to allocate the funds equitably. But they can’t do it alone.
We spoke with Escondido Mayor Lori Holt Pfeiler, with San Marcos Mayor Jim Desmond, a number of other officials . . . invariably the answer is the same. Promises were not kept, the 172 funds are not being disbursed equitably. Fire protection has been shortchanged.
How to bring pressure on the County Board of Supervisors? We will, for one, submit a copy of this edition of The Paper, together with a complaint, to the San Diego County Grand Jury with a request that they investigate the matter. Understand that, technically, the county is not violating any law. At least in the legal sense. The question is, are they doing the right thing, morally, to give us promised fire protection? The San Diego County Grand Jury is not charged with invesigating only criminal complaints . . . . they have jurisdiction over county governmental offices . . . and will often make recommendations to improve county government functions.
If the Grand Jury accepts this case, and if they recommend the county fund the cities (we recommend a ratio of 85% county, 15% cities) and if Corky, Art and Dave continue their fight, and if other like minded elected officials join the battle, and if other media jump in and offer support . . . then perhaps, at long last, the voters will get what they voted for and the county will bow to the wishes of the people.
For all of the reasons cited above, The Paper opposes Proposition A (the parcel tax) and urges the County Supervisors to apportion 172 funds equitably.